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Fire of aggression

Published : Sep 23, 2005 00:00 IST

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An upper-caste mob, resentful of a Dalit community's relative prosperity, burns its homes following a murder in Haryana's Gohana subdivision.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Gohana

"WE work in your homes. We do the cleaning and sweeping, and all the things that no one else would like to do. We even wear the used clothes that you give us. Tell me, why does it hurt others if we are able to scrimp and save and build something for ourselves?"

Sixty-year-old Lajwanti from Panipat district in Haryana was referring to the August 31 arson in Gohana subdivision of neighbouring Sonepat district. Fifty-three Dalit homes were burnt and looted, homes that were deserted because members of the Valmiki community had already fled their homes fearing reprisal following the August 27 murder of a Jat youth. The reprisal did come soon after, targeting not life but property, at Valmiki Colony and in the adjoining Arya Nagar Colony, a mixed neighbourhood where the homes of the Dalits were singled out. There is a murmur here that the Valmikis "brought it upon themselves", that they were "asking for it". For not all Valmikis, it seems, are willing to sweep and clean any more.

Pradeep Sangwan and Ranvir Sangwan, son and brother respectively of Kishen Singh Sangwan, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament, have been named in the first information report (FIR) filed after the arson. The MP has denied his son's involvement. However, as many as 15 of the 23 men booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are BJP members, including the block president, a senior police officer said.

Three bored policemen sat guarding the lane to Valmiki Colony when this correspondent visited the place. The oldest of them directed the Frontline team to the burnt homes, almost in the manner of a tourist guide: "Go, have a look. There are many more lying burnt in the inner lanes." One of the younger policeman mumbled that something like this was "bound to happen". Suddenly, an elderly Dalit man near by spoke up, pointing an angry finger to the policemen: "They were sitting like this that day too. If only they had acted, our homes would not be in the state they are in today."

The police fired in the air while the arson was going on, but that did not stop the mob. Inspector-General of Police (Rohtak Range) V.N. Rai said that the police had no reason to fire at the mob because there was no threat to life - the looters were burning empty homes. Deputy Commissioner Suresh Goel said it was all over in 15 minutes.

Days after the arson, only a few of the victims had dared to return. Among them was a distraught Roshini, a widow who lost the house she had struggled hard to build. "The government says give us a list of the things destroyed. Tell me, where should I begin?" she asked. Her son Sanjay said he was willing to give evidence in court on the involvement of a powerful local politician who had been named in the FIR. "Death comes only once, doesn't it? I don't care," he said. Two sisters, Laxmi and Birmati, both widows, had also returned, but all they could do was sit and stare at the remains of their home.

The Valmikis had started fleeing Gohana soon after the murder of a Jat youth, Baljeet Siwach, the police said. A group of men beat him to death on August 27, allegedly because he had made lewd remarks about the wife of one of them. Four men were arrested in connection with the murder. The administration anticipated trouble: the local police were alerted and some sub-inspectors and station house officers were posted in areas thought to be volatile. The trouble, when it came, showed that the preparations were just not enough.

There was resentment among the Jats regarding the police action after the murder. Some influential local residents had named seven men as the culprits and there was anger when only four were arrested. But the police were not convinced of the complicity of the others. One of them, Lara, is a popular local leader of the Valmikis. His community looks up to him as a champion of the downtrodden and his father is the president of the Bhagwan Valmiki Sabha, an organisation representing the interests of the community.

On August 31, representatives of the Jats from 12 villages, the Barah Khap, met in Gohana. It was a small group of village elders who were not convinced that justice had been done. The administration was told of the meeting, and it gave permission for it too. Those who had stayed back at Valmiki Colony after the August 27 murder fled on the day of this meeting. Some Dalits this correspondent met said they were asked to flee by policemen who told them that they might not be able to control the situation.

Some young men, allegedly led by Pradeep Sangwan, joined the meeting and demanded that the Valmikis should be taught a lesson. They allegedly even gave an ultimatum to the Hooda government, threatening it with "dire consequences" unless all the culprits including Lara were arrested within 48 hours. Some reports said that some of the older men tried to restrain them.

As things got out of control, the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, who were camping in the Gohana government rest house, arrived at the venue. The police say they tried to dissuade the young men from doing anything drastic. They evidently failed, and very soon there was a mob heading for the Valmiki neighbourhoods. That the arson took so little time seems to suggest that it was an organised action.

The lanes of Valmiki Basti are far narrower compared to lanes in the rest of the town. But this Dalit neighbourhood had been showing signs of relative prosperity over the past few years. Some of the houses are double-storeyed and some had, before the arson, modern gadgets such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, music systems, and so on. These were the homes that provoked the vandalising mob most. It was the same story at Arya Nagar, where some of the Dalit homes were better appointed that the others.

Indeed, the Dalits of Gohana, especially the Valmikis, have been doing well. The good days, of course, came after a long, hard struggle. Many of the older men have jobs as municipal workers in the local corporation, while the women are employed as municipal workers and domestic servants. Some members of the community have benefited from job reservation. The younger generation, however, does not fancy a future as sweepers in the municipality's payroll. The young people want to better their lot, socially and economically, through higher studies. This correspondent met young men who were either doing their graduation or pursuing some vocational or professional course, all children of municipal workers and domestic servants and determined to break out of their position in the social hierarchy.

Karan, for instance, is doing a Master of Computer Applications course in Rohtak and supports his education with a part-time job. His grandfather was a municipal worker, a cleaner whose son became a clerk with the Railways. Karan has ambitions that go beyond clerical work. His father recently bought him a computer, which the mob took away.

Worldly success, however, has not translated into social acceptability for the Valmikis. They are aware that they are still looked down upon and the youth find it especially hard to take.

The Valmikis are more organised than other Dalit groups. They have their own welfare organisations, and even separate temples, which are, however, open to all. And of late, they have been expressing their resentment quite openly. A Jat youth allegedly molested a Valmiki woman at a religious congregation organised by the community last year. The situation turned ugly and a man from the dominant community, known for his allegedly anti-social activities, was murdered. Three years ago, there was an attempt to usurp some land belonging to the Valmiki Sabha. This was resisted and Lara took up the cudgels against the alleged land-grabbers, who had a police officer among them.

The Valmikis say that in all such incidents, and in the recent murder, members of the community hit back only after being provoked. Rohtash Kumar, a government employee, said: "The Jats think that whatever they do is right. The conflict is always between us and the Jats, because none of the other Scheduled Caste groups is as organised as we are."

Another young man, Deepak, said that the location of Valmiki Colony right in the middle of the town was provocative for a lot of people. It was once an assemblage of hutments, which were gradually replaced by pucca structures. "They hate us if we build homes," Deepak said. "The police and others have been constantly referring to our homes as shanties. Do our structures look like huts to you?" They do not, and that is why, probably, the community is in trouble.

It is distressing how most people in the area, barring the Valmikis of course, are not shocked at the arson. While some people accuse the media of defaming the Jats, others say the Valmikis brought it upon themselves. A former schoolteacher said the arson was "unfortunate" but "inevitable". "Tell me, how come they are called Dalits when they live in pucca homes?" he said, adding that whereas the Jat farmers were not well off at all, the Dalits had built houses costing lakhs. "When Siwach died, none of the shops was closed, but now some groups have declared a Haryana bandh in support of the Valmikis. Is it fair?"

The subtext seems to be that the Valmikis have grown too big for their boots. Indeed, the community is typically perceived by the higher castes and by the police as a group prone to crime. One frequently hears unsubstantiated allegations such as "girls do not feel safe while passing by that locality", "the Valmikis do not have electricity meters", or "it is their habit to pick a fight". There are also loose allegations of the Valmikis' involvement in smuggling and smack trade.

The verifiable details of the Valmikis' lives, however, do not support the impression of a criminalised community. It is a community that has settled down in proper homes, that sends its children to government schools; a community that has its adult members holding jobs in the municipal corporation or working as domestic servants. And if it is their recent prosperity that is held against them, it is not as if all Valmikis have been equally fortunate. If there are double-storeyed houses in the colony, there are also the humble homes of daily wage earners, which did not escape the vandals' wrath on August 31.

On September 2, at a time when most of the Valmikis had still not dared to return home, a `panchayat' of the various castes was held at the Gohana Mandi. The gathering was dominated by members of a single community, who demanded the arrest of three more Valmiki youths. The murder of Balraj Siwach was repeatedly mentioned and inflammatory language was used. The speakers claimed that Jats were being slandered and accused the media of rousing passions. Baljeet Rabra, a village pradhan who attended the August 31 panchayat, alleged that Valmikis, had set fire to their own homes in order to get compensation. There was, of course, not a single woman present, as is the wont with such panchayats.

The recent events have driven a further wedge between the Valmikis and the Jats, two communities that are divided, among other things, on political lines as well. The Valmikis by and large vote for the Congress, and the district's BJP leaders are aware that they will never have the community's support. Kishen Singh Sangwan, whose victory in the last Lok Sabha elections was helped by the Congress' infighting, is reportedly trying to hold on to a shrinking base. That could be one reason why his party reportedly went about mobilising the Jats after Siwach's murder. Police sources also saw an "emotional involvement" of the MP's family because a brother of the murdered Jat youth used to be his personal secretary. But there appeared to be more to it than an "emotional involvement".

The Rohtak byelection to the Lok Sabha is only a few weeks away. The recent events are bound to have repercussions on the ruling party's prospects. Apart from the administration's ineffectual role during the arson, the Congress's inability to condemn it in strong terms has exposed its pro-Jat slant. It was only on September 3 that the Sonepat D.C., S.P. and DSP were transferred, and the action is believed to be the result of pressure from Left parties and Dalit organisations.

A delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led by Polit Bureau member and Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat, Dipankar Mukherjee, also an MP, and Haryana State secretary Inderjit Singh, visited the Dalit homes and the family of the murdered youth. Later, a CPI(M) delegation led by Brinda Karat and including State secretariat member S.N. Solanki and some widows from the Valmiki Colony met Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil.

Atrocities against Dalits have been on the rise in Haryana. Three years ago, when the Indian National Lok Dal was in power, five young men were lynched in the presence of policemen in Duleena, Jhajjar district. A section of the administration offered a strange explanation for the crime: the five young men, who were professional skinners and flayers, were killed because of mistaken identity. At Alewa village in Jind district, Dalit contractors involved in animal skin trade were beaten and their homes were burnt: the excuse was that they slaughtered cows, which was a false claim anyway.

In 2003, an elected Dalit sarpanch from a Brahmin-dominated village went "missing" in Pehrawar in Rohtak district after a gram sabha meeting and the police are even now clueless about his whereabouts. His family has given him up for dead. Barring the CPI(M) and some Dalit organisations, none of the other mainstream parties were even remotely concerned with the sarpanch's disappearance.

Social boycotts of Dalits are very common. The most recent occurred in July this year at Palwal in Faridabad district, where Dalits were confined to their homes by upper-caste Hindus because they had dared to step inside a temple. In 2002, two Dalits, both activists of the All India Agricultural Workers' Union, were fined and hit with sandals for objecting to the social and economic boycott of their community. The same year, more than 100 Dalit families were forced to flee their homes at Harsaula village in Kaithal district.

Today, much of Gohana town is stinking because the people responsible for the cleaning - the majority of municipal workers from Valmiki Colony - are in hiding and the remaining municipal workers have refused to clear garbage until justice is done to their mates. But it is the stink of social injustice which is a bigger challenge and which is expected to linger on.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2005.)

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